Open house, closed books

The first full day of Governor Bill Haslam’s administration saw the new executive and his wife welcoming guests to the Governor’s Mansion. But while Tennesseans were shown around the place, they won’t be privy to annual income information belonging to the governor or top administration officials. On Saturday, the AP reports, Haslam signed his first executive order, which “eliminates a requirement for the governor and top aides to disclose how much they earn.”

The move caused a stir in the Twitterverse, with most echoing the sentiment expressed by @TNcitizen: “Changing income disclosure rules is a bad first move by @billhaslam. Must say that I’m disappointed.” Another critic added “Disturbing.” And @thelastmango expressed his dissatisfaction rather bluntly.

It is worth noting two things here: one, that the income disclosure rules rescinded by Haslam were not extremely long-standing, but were put in place by his predecessor, former Gov. Phil Bredesen. And two, the news article points out that the entire General Assembly enjoys a similar privacy with regard to personal incomes. (The Legislature often writes itself out of rules it imposes upon others, but that’s a different blog post, someday.)

It comes down to timing and patterns. While elected officials’ salaries paid by the taxpayers are certainly and completely public information (to avoid situations like that endured by the citizens of Bell, California), their private incomes are not as clearly any of our business. Much more important than the amounts themselves are the potential conflicts of interest encountered by overseeing the sources of said incomes. Everyone pretty much knows that Haslam’s haul from Pilot Travel Centers and other places is approximately “more than I’ll ever imagine seeing in a lifetime.” What’s the point of knowing precisely how much that is? How, exactly, would his disclosing it alter any of the facts related to running the administration?

But while this disclosure is not a requirement, the spirit of openness and transparency is not something that should be dismissed or treated with nonchalance. Haslam was repeatedly criticized during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign for not disclosing his income—which, again, he was not obligated to do—and to make this his first official act carries just enough of a whiff of secrecy to get the bloodhounds baying.

Then again, it could have been placed first on the agenda in order to take advantage of our collective attention deficit disorder and cause all but the most dogged detractors to move on once the next bit of controversy arises. And if anyone spilled anything on one of the rugs during Sunday’s open house, just rest assured that the governor can replace it out of his own pocket.

Further reading: two additional executive orders were signed at the same time, and got no mention in the press. Executive Order 2011-02 calls for “[e]xtensive training…for all members and employees of the Cabinet and Departments of the Executive Branch relating to open meetings, open records, ethics and disclosure requirements.” Number 2011-03 outlines the administration’s non-discrimination policy and instructs the Department of Economic and Community Development to pass along those requirements to all companies doing business in the state.

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